George Nelson (1908–1986) was an American industrial designer and one of the founders of American Modernism. While Director of Design for the Herman Miller furniture company, Nelson and his design studio, George Nelson Associates, Inc., designed much of the 20th century’s most iconic modernist furniture.
It has been argued that Nelson might be called a metadesigner – that his intent of study and practice was neither the building nor the product but rather the process of design itself. Nelson’s manner of interdisciplinary design and therefore progressive thinking reoriented the entire concern with capitalist destruction around the dynamic of producer and product.
However, when comparing the careers of other designers, he seemed not only unconventional and tastefully noncommercial, but at times negative. “…it is the career of an architect who advocated the end of architecture, a furniture designer who imagined rooms without furniture, an urban designer who contemplated the hidden city, an industrial designer who questioned the future of the object and hated the obsession with products.”
By 1940 George Nelson had become known for several innovative concepts. In his post-war book Tomorrow’s House, co-authored with Henry Wright, he introduced the concept of the “family room”, and the “storage wall”. The storage wall was essentially the idea of recessed, built-in bookcases or shelving occupying space previously lost between walls. It was an idea developed while writing the book, when Nelson’s publisher was pressuring him to finish the section on storage. Neither Wright nor Nelson could find any new innovations when Nelson posed the question, “What’s inside the wall?”, It was then that the idea of utilizing the space in between walls for storage was born. Tomorrow’s House was innovative because it didn’t look at modern design as a case of styles, but instead looked at the way problems needed to be solved.
In 1945, the Herman Miller furniture company was producing mostly conventional, wood-based designs. After reading Tomorrow’s House D.J. Depree, the Chairman of Herman Miller, selected Nelson to be the company’s next Director of Design, despite Nelson having no experience designing furniture. Depree was more interested in Nelson’s insight into the best way to make furniture innovative and useful. Nelson was offered a contract that allowed him the freedom to work outside of Herman Miller, and to use designs from other architects that Nelson had worked with. He became the Director of Design for Herman Miller in 1947, and held the position until 1972. The first Herman Miller catalog produced by Nelson was released in 1945. Over the following years it would include some of the most iconic home furnishings of the 20th century. Ray and Charles Eames, Harry Bertoia, Richard Schultz, Donald Knorr, and Isamu Noguchi all worked for Herman Miller, under Nelson’s supervision. Although both Bertoia and Noguchi later expressed regrets about their involvement, it became a successful period for the company, and for George Nelson.
George Nelson Associates, Inc.
Using the money he earned as Director of Design for Herman Miller, in 1947 Nelson opened a design studio in New York City. On October 26, 1955 he incorporated it into George Nelson Associates, Inc., and moved to 251 Park Avenue South. The studio was successful in bringing together many of the top designers of the era, who were soon designing for Herman Miller under the George Nelson label. Among the noted designers who worked for George Nelson Associates, Inc. were Irving Harper, George Mulhauser (designer of the Coconut Chair), Robert Brownjohn(designer of the sets for the James Bond film Goldfinger), Don Chadwick, Bill Renwick, Suzanne Sekey, John Svezia, Ernest Farmer, Tobias O’Mara, George Tscherny, (who designed the Herman Miller advertisements), Lance Wyman, and John Pile. With his studio, Nelson enacted new practices for the involvement of design in all aspects of the company, pioneering the practice of corporate image management, graphic programs, and signage. By the time the company closed in the mid-1980s George Nelson Associates, Inc. had worked with most of the Fortune 500 companies. George Nelson’s architectural projects included what he dubbed “The Colombian Garden of Health”, a 200-bed tertiary care hospital in Bogota, Colombia, commisoned by the Fundacion Santa Fe de Bogota.
The office cubicle
In 1960 Herman Miller created the Herman Miller Research Corporation under the direction of Robert Propst, and the supervision of George Nelson. Although Nelson remained at Herman Miller’s main campus in Zeeland, Michigan, Robert Propst and the Herman Miller Research Corporation was located in Ann Arbor, Michigan to place it in close proximity to the University of Michigancampus. The company’s purpose was to examine changes in the use of office furniture that had taken place during the 20th century, but not the furniture itself. After consulting with experts in psychology, anthropology, and various other fields, Propst created the Action Office I line, which was executed by Nelson’s studio, and first appeared in Herman Miller’s 1964 catalog. For designing the Action Office I Nelson was awarded the prestigious Alcoa award. The Action Office I line was not a success, and Nelson was removed from the project. Propst then created the Action Office II, which is better known today as the “Office cubicle”. Despite the “Action Office II” line becoming Herman Miller’s most successful project, George Nelson disowned himself from any connection with the project. In 1970 he sent a letter to Robert Blaich, who had become Herman Miller’s Vice-President for Corporate Design and Communication, in which he described the system’s “dehumanizing effect as a working environment.” He summed up his feeling by saying:
“One does not have to be an especially perceptive critic to realize that AO II is definitely not a system which produces an environment gratifying for people in general. But it is admirable for planners looking for ways of cramming in a maximum number of bodies, for “employees” (as against individuals), for “personnel,” corporate zombies, the walking dead, the silent majority. A large market.”
Scornful as he may have been, Nelson was right that there turned out to be a “larger market” for AO II. By 2005 total sales had reached $5 billion.
The George Nelson Associates, Inc. catalog, and exhibition designs for Herman Miller, made modernism the most important driving force in the company. From his start in the mid-forties until the mid-eighties George Nelson Associates, Inc. partnered with most of the modernist designers of the time. This was both the result of Nelson’s time as a magazine editor, and because of Nelson’s writing. His skill as a writer helped legitimize and stimulate the field of industrial design by contributing to the creation of Industrial Design magazine in 1953. Nelson wrote extensively, published several books, and organized conferences like the Aspen design gatherings, where for more than 30 years he was the guiding force. In 1971, he received a grant from the Graham Foundation for his project “Hidden Cities”. One of George Nelson’s areas of interest was the reduction of pollution. Through his attempts to reduce all forms of pollution, including visual, audio, and chemical, Nelson pioneered the idea of the outdoor shopping mall, first using the idea in a proposal for the city plan of Austin, Texas, which was not used.
George Nelson retired with the closing of his studio in the mid-1980s. He died in New York City in 1986.